Pastor Scott Hansen
You might feel a little bit of a sense of déjà vu with the sermon this morning. You may remember sitting in this very chapel hearing a similar sermon, but you just can’t quite put your finger on it. I am here to tell you that you would be correct in thinking that during my sermon this morning. Our text is Hebrews 3:7-19, which is the second major warning in Hebrews against falling away from the faith. If you remember about a month ago, Pastor Kyle preached on Hebrews 2:1-4, which was a warning against neglecting the great salvation God offers us in the gospel. He said that spiritual neglect is the first step down the road of apostasy or falling away from the living God. The argument was this: that if every transgression or disobedience was punished under the Old Covenant, how can expect to escape if we neglect the great salvation we have in the gospel?
Hopefully, that rings a bell to some of you. If not, Kyle did a fantastic job, and I would encourage you to go back and take a listen. We need these warnings as a reminder to be watchful and vigilant over our faith. The fact that we get these warnings so close together in Hebrews underscores their importance. Its something that we need to hear and need to hear often. It makes us think about spiritual realities that we are prone to forget. Imagine you are driving at night, and you are physically behind the wheel, but you have that glazed-over look and your mind is lost meandering the reaches of your imagination. Your heart starts racing and you come to your senses when you see that familiar look of eyes shining in your headlights and you slam on your brakes so that you don’t hit a deer. If you weren’t awake before, you’re awake now! And when you continue, you think twice about putting your car in cruise control. Before you were careless. Now, you are watchful for the threats around you. That’s the effect these warnings against unbelief are supposed to have on our hearts! As we walk with Christ, we should be examining our hearts. These warnings startle us awake to think about our hearts so that we don’t become passive. To not be negligent with our faith but keeping watch. Not careless, but vigilant.
Over the next two weeks, we will be covering the verses spanning from Hebrews 3:7 to 4:13, which describe the promise of a future rest for God’s people and a warning against failing to enter on account of unbelief. He uses Israel’s failure to reach God’s promised rest as a warning to us against the same unbelief that prevented them from entering. Our focus this morning will be on the warning found in chapter three. Next week, Tyler will bring it to completion by preaching on the Sabbath rest that is the reward for God’s people who persevere to the end.
In verses 7-19, we have the warning, which is essentially this: Take care to run well so that you may rest well. Be careful not to disqualify yourself by unbelief for the reward awaiting those who are in Christ. There are three components to this warning that will be the three main points I will walk through this morning:
Take care not to rely on spiritual privilege
There is a parallel that we need to keep in mind between Israel in the time of Moses and ourselves in the present day. The Jewish audience that this book is written to would have identified with the example of Israel and felt their failings at a deeper level. As Gentiles in the 21st century, that example seems very remote and difficult to identify with. This is where it is helpful to consider what Dan preached on last week. They were the house of God with Moses as the servant just as we are a continuation of that house with Jesus over the house as a Son. The parallel serves to remind the house of God in the present day to avoid the mistakes of the house of God in the past. The Israelites that God brought out of Egypt did not enter His rest because of unbelief. Today, the promise of God’s rest still stands and those who persevere and hold fast to Christ will enter it.
Israel provides a case study on the consequences of harboring a hard, unbelieving heart. These were God’s chosen people who, through no merit of their own, He had miraculously rescued out of Egypt and covenanted with to bring to a land and give them rest. Seeing all that, many still didn’t trust in God for that deliverance. This passage serves as a warning and points out that they failed to enter God’s rest because of their hard hearts and unbelief. Verses 7-11 quote Psalm 95, which says:
Today, if you hear his voice,
do not harden your hearts, as at Meribah,
as on the day at Massah in the wilderness,
when your fathers put me to the test
and put me to the proof, though they had seen my work.
For forty years I loathed that generation
and said, “They are a people who go astray in their heart,
and they have not known my ways.”
Therefore I swore in my wrath,
“They shall not enter my rest.”
There are two instances that are alluded to here. The first is the rebellion at Massah and Meribah and the second was when they refused to enter the land God was giving them at Kadesh-barnea. The names Massah and Meribah mean testing and quarreling because they quarreled with Moses and put God to the test because of their thirst. They accused Moses saying, “Why did you bring us up out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and our livestock with thirst?” At this point, it’s easy for us to be dismissive of Israel because we have the benefit of hindsight and know how the story ends. We should be careful not to be too proud here and presume that we would have done any differently. We get the full benefit of the warning if we put ourselves in their shoes and consider how they were thinking and then to see how that relates to how we think about and respond to circumstances we face in our lives. Imagine you are walking through a hot, dry desert wilderness. The flight attendants aren’t asking if you would like a drink and some peanuts to sustain you through your journey. All you can see ahead is desert and all you can see behind is desert with Mount Sinai poking up in the background. You are thirsty, your children are thirsty, and your animals are thirsty and there is no water in sight. You start thinking of the Nile. There would have been water in Egypt! You can stay out here with Moses and die or go back to Egypt and live. How would you have responded in that situation or a similar difficulty in your life? Can’t you see how easy it would have been to rationalize and justify unbelief? They had God’s word that he would give them rest in the land. He had shown them he would do it by signs and miracles! They didn’t trust God at His word, but looked around and thought, “God isn’t going to get us out of this one. He has left us to die.” God had shown himself faithful and trustworthy, but they still didn’t trust in the Lord’s provision. When difficult circumstances arise, the hard heart doesn’t trust in God’s faithfulness but accuses Him for the difficulty.
For Israel, this was one more act of deliverance to bolster their faith and strengthen their unbelieving hearts so that they could take possession of the land, but it didn’t matter. When ten of the twelve spies came back from Canaan with the report that the cities were too well fortified and the people too powerful for them, they were once again ready to stone their leaders and return to Egypt. In His wrath, God swore that they would not enter His rest. The author in Hebrews makes it crystal clear in verses 16-19 that the reason they didn’t enter God’s rest wasn’t because God was incapable of doing so, but because of unbelief.
"For who were those who heard and yet rebelled?
Was it not all those who left Egypt led by Moses?
And with whom was he provoked for forty years?
Was it not with those who sinned, whose bodies fell in the wilderness?
And to whom did he swear that they would not enter his rest,
but to those who were disobedient?
So we see that they were unable to enter because of unbelief."
They had all the spiritual privilege, but in the absence of faith, it was meaningless. There was every opportunity for them to respond in faith, but they continued in unbelief. Paul, in 1 Corinthians 10, drives it home.
"For I do not want you to be unaware, brothers,
that our fathers were all under the cloud,
and all passed through the sea,
and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea,
and all ate the same spiritual food,
and fall drank the same spiritual drink.
For they drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them,
and the Rock was Christ.
Nevertheless, with most of them, God was not pleased,
for they were overthrown in the wilderness."
Now, these things took place as examples for us,
that we might not desire evil as they did.
Do not be idolaters as some of them were;
as it is written, 'The people sat down to eat and
drink and rose up to play.'
We must not indulge in sexual immorality as some of them did,
and twenty-three thousand fell in a single day.
We must not put Christ to the test, as some of them did
and were destroyed by serpents, nor grumble, as some of them did
and were destroyed by the Destroyer.
Now, these things happened to them as an example,
but they were written down for our instruction,
on whom the end of the ages has come.
Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands
take heed lest he fall."
What Paul is arguing, and I think what the author in Hebrews is communicating using Israel as an example is that spiritual privilege alone is insufficient. For it to be of any value, it must be accompanied by faith. We can read all the right books, listen to the right sermons, and attend the right church, but it is of no value unless it is accompanied by or results in faith. In a similar way that reading about basketball, watching basketball, and hanging out with people who play basketball does not make you a basketball player. The spiritual privilege of having the Law and being among God’s chosen people could only mask the unbelief of individuals in that community for so long. The warning is to beware of relying on spiritual privilege as a substitute for true faith. Who is the warning directed to? Us! This warning is for anyone who thinks that they stand so that they don’t stumble and fall. It is a warning against piety without faith. It is a warning against a form of spirituality without introspection. It is a warning to examine our hearts, which is our second point this morning. The first was to take care not to rely on spiritual privilege like Israel who failed to enter God’s rest. The second point is to take care to examine your heart.
Take care to examine your heart
As you read the passage, it might be easy to miss the gravity of the warning by glossing over the words “take care”. In my mind, the phrase “take care” is more of a strong suggestion. It’s used for things like, “Take care to take off your shoes when you enter the house.” Or “Take care to write your name at the top of your exam so that the grader knows who it belongs to.” The consequence in verse twelve isn’t a messy floor or a failing grade but falling away from the living God. This isn’t a gentle nudge, but a dire warning against unbelief. When we come to the words take care in our Bibles, and particularly in this case, it should set off alarm bells in our minds. This is where it would be helpful to have red flashing lights blaring on the page to alert us to the sober warning that follows.
“Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart,
leading you to fall away from the living God.
But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,”
that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.
For we have come to share in Christ,
if indeed we hold our original confidence firm to the end.”
Notice who he is addressing. He says, “Take care, brothers…”. He is addressing people he views as fellow believers. The warning isn’t against unbelief in a general sense, but of unbelief under the guise of faith. He has already made that point using Israel as an example that there will be those associated with God’s covenant community who are able to blend in well enough on the outside, but on the inside have evil, unbelieving hearts. If he were writing this to us, he could have said, “Take care, Redeemer Church, lest there be in any of you an evil unbelieving heart. That gets your attention, doesn’t it?” The implication is that even we in the church need to examine our hearts. Not relying on our attendance, but truly examining our faith. So, if you are here this morning, this message is for you. It is something that you need to hear. I tend to brush these kinds of warning aside because I am a believer and I don’t think it necessary for me to do any self-examination. We shouldn’t think of it as something that a neighbor, or coworker, or person on our dorm floor needs to hear. He is writing this so that we make sure that it isn’t us who have an unbelieving heart that causes us to fall away. This warning is for the house of God to help us run well as we follow Jesus to make our calling and election sure.
One of the biggest threats to an earnest examination of our hearts is distraction. It is countercultural to stop and ponder whether sin is gaining a foothold in your life. It is far more common to avoid thinking about spiritual matters by keeping our minds occupied with sports, hobbies, social media, or our work. Are any of things inherently sinful? No. But it is more beneficial to us to stop, and with some regularity, consider our hearts. Have we been prone to spiritual neglect? Has our faith become lukewarm? Are we gravitating toward a love of the world? Are we loving one another? Do we have an unbelieving heart? There is tremendous benefit from asking difficult, heart-level questions. They help us to remain rooted in Christ. Examining our heart helps us to identify an unbelieving heart that is dull toward God. When this takes hold, we are at risk of giving in to the deceitfulness of sin.
Each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death. We can’t blame sin on our circumstances or as some foreign thing that enters us. It arises from own desire. Therefore, we ought to be careful what we desire so that we don’t give in to the deceitfulness of sin. Sin seems private. It seems harmless. It seems justified. It makes promises that it can’t keep. Sin is deceitful. It is not private, it is not harmless, it is never right, and will not bring you fulfillment. Instead, we need to put to death what is earthly in us. Sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. On account of these, the wrath of God is coming. In these too, you once walked, when you were living in them. But now you must put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth. Be watchful against the deceitfulness of sin. It isn’t just our own hearts that we need to care for, but also our brothers’. Take care not to rely on spiritual privilege. Take care to examine your heart. Our final point is to take care of your brother.
Take care of your brother
This is verse 13. “But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called ‘today,’ that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. For we have come to share in Christ if indeed we hold our original confidence to the end.” We are not only supposed to be watchful over our own hearts, but also for the other members of the house of God. We exhort one another so that our brothers and sisters in the faith also are not hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. It is another set of eyes on our life. We know what exhortation is. We hear an exhortation every Sunday as a strong encouragement to live by faith. We are urged to put sin aside and walk in obedience. That’s what it means to exhort. To urge, to implore, to strongly encourage. And we have this responsibility toward one another, to exhort one another toward love and good works. Toward righteousness and away from backsliding in sin. It’s not a pie-in-the-sky ideal that we should get around to eventually. It is urgent and the passage to do it every day.
We avoid the deceitfulness of sin with the help and encouragement of one another. We need to both receive exhortation and give exhortation. It is good for us to have other believers urging us to walk in the obedience of faith. Warning us of pitfalls, pointing out patterns of sin, and reminding us of the gospel. It is God’s grace to you that there are believers in your life to encourage you to consider Jesus and urge you to walk more closely with Him. Being a part of a church body is so important. You miss out on having others surrounding you who care for your soul otherwise. People who are concerned with the outcome of your faith. Having the church around you helps you to run well while you also help others to run well and persevere to the end. We don’t just receive exhortation, but we are also called to exhort others.
Think back to this year’s summer Olympics. From swimming to gymnastics to track and field, there are all kinds of team sports. Are those athletes content if they individually set a personal best, but their teammates struggle and they don’t make the podium? They may have some sense of accomplishment, but it would be much sweeter had they all competed well and got to celebrate on the podium. It is their delight to see their teammates race well so they can receive the prize together. We, as members of the church, should have that same mind. It should be our delight to see one another loving Jesus more and more with each passing day. A life lived in faithfulness to the Lord by a brother or sister in Christ should give us much joy. That is our motivation to exhort one another. I don’t just want to hear God say to me, “well done, good and faithful servant.” I want that for all of you to! We should desire that for one another! Don’t delay, but every day, as long as it is called today, exhort one another so that you may not be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.
Just as a word of conclusion, I urge you to run well. Athletes compete for a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. Therefore, run well so that you may obtain it. We show that we are God’s house if indeed we hold fast our hope. So be diligent to confirm your calling and election by persevering to the end. It is an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God’s power are being guarded by faith for the salvation ready to be revealed at the last time. Until then, take care not to rely on spiritual privilege, but be strong in faith. Take care to examine your heart so that you do not fall away from the living God. And make it your joy to take care of one another.